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Commentary By Charlotte Allen

Undermining the Faith

Catholic bashers like to refer to priests as “men in dresses.” It’s just another in a growing number of media cheap shots directed at Pope Benedict XVI.

“Men in dresses.” That’s who columnist Maureen Dowd blames for decay in “our religious kingdom.”

Which men in dresses is she referring too? The ballerinas-in-drag of Les Ballets Trockadero? The Marilyn Monroe lookalikes marching in gay pride parades? Nope. She’s talking about Catholic priests.

Lately Dowd, along with half the other columnists in America, has been speculating about what Pope Benedict XVI knew or didn’t know concerning clerical abuse of minors back when he was Josef Ratzinger, acting as archbishop of Munich or as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And she and her gang seem to find it hilarious that Catholic priests and bishops often wear cassocks or other long traditional robes, especially on formal religious occasions and when celebrating Mass.

It’s odd that no one ever uses the word “dresses” to describe the ankle-length liturgical garments worn by Episcopal priests. Nor are Protestant ministers or Jewish rabbis derided as cross-dressers when they don long robes for religious services. Has anyone ever called the Dalai Lama “a man in a dress”? Or Genghis Khan? Not unless you wanted to see your ribcage sliced into salami by a scimitar.

For most of human history long robes on men — whether the togas of Roman senators, the kimonos of Japanese samurai or the black gowns worn by judges and academics today — have been associated with status, dignity and, in the case of the clergy, the sacral separation of religious ritual from the ordinary activities of daily life. Indeed, so redolent of masculinity are those garments that when women enter the professions for which they are worn, they often soften and feminize them. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, wears lace collars with her judicial robes

Catholic priests alone are mocked as ecclesiastical Lypsinkas in the media and elsewhere when they dare to wear the traditional garb of their calling. There is a reason for that. The latest round of abuse allegations, only one of which can be said to have occurred on Ratzinger’s watch, aren’t really about supposed Vatican cover-ups of sexual exploitation of children by clerics. They are yet another effort to discredit the Roman Catholic Church wholesale by people whose beefs with Catholicism rest on entirely different grounds — namely that it forbids abortion and homosexual conduct, it doesn’t allow women to be priests, and it requires men who enter the priesthood to remain celibate.

If you can undermine the Catholic Church and its theologically conservative current pope with a cheap shot by calling its clergy a bunch of drag queens, the thinking seems to go, all well and good. Far better, though, to reach into your quiver for a more expensive and deadly shot, which is the best way to describe the current campaign, based on flimsy to nonexistent evidence, to implicate Benedict in a sinister conspiracy to shield Catholic clerics from the consequences of their sexual rapacity.

Eight years ago, in 2002, the media performed a valuable, if painful, service to the church by exposing a large number of instances in which Catholic bishops in the U.S. acted in ineffectual, dilatory and self-serving ways during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s so as to permit Catholic priests who were known child and teen molesters to continue serving in parishes.

The revelations resulted in a drastic and salutary overhaul of the U.S. church’s procedures for handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse of children. Even before then, in 2001, Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, had centralized and toughened standards for the Vatican’s then-piecemeal system for disciplining abusive priests. As pope, he has issued apologies to U.S. and, most recently, Irish victims of systematic church mishandling of their cases.

This year is essentially 2002 repeated as farce instead of tragedy, as journalists scramble to locate some microscopic shred of evidence that might connect Benedict to the handful of now-hoary abuse cases they have unearthed. The offenses enumerated in those cases are appalling: molesting deaf children; soliciting sex from the confessional. But it’s not exactly the Vatican’s fault that the diocese of Milwaukee, for example, waited 20 years, until 1996, before initiating proceedings to defrock a notorious, now-deceased priest-pederast, or that the diocese of Oakland never even tried to defrock Steven Kiesle, who pleaded guilty in 1978 to charges of fondling boys in his church rectory, Instead, the diocese relied on Kiesle’s slow-moving voluntary petition to the Vatican for laicization while he continued to work as a parish youth minister in Contra Costa County.

The German priest, Peter Hullerman, accused of having oral sex with an 11-year-old boy in 1979, was allowed by Ratzinger to move to Munich for psychotherapy in January 1980 (those were the days when people believed that counseling could cure sex offenders). Ratzinger’s deputy allowed Hullerman to live in a rectory and help out in a parish during the therapy — a bad idea, but it’s unclear whether Ratzinger ever read the memo authorizing that move. The Munich archdiocese subsequently allowed Hullerman to return to full-time parish work — a reprehensible idea, but the decision was made in September 1982, seven months after Ratzinger had left Munich to assume his Vatican post.

That’s all there is, folks. But that didn’t stop Dowd and others from calling for Benedict’s resignation from the papacy. Atlantic blogger and gay-marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan used the abuse cases as a platform to press for an end to priestly celibacy and the ban on homosexual activity. “I don’t believe ... that you can tackle this problem without seeing it as a symptom of a much deeper failure of the church to come to terms with sexuality, sexual orientation and the warping, psychologically distorting impact of compulsory celibacy,” he wrote on April 1.

Professional atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins went a step further, demanding that British law enforcement arrest Benedict on his planned visit to Britain later this year and turn him over to the International Criminal Court to be tried for “crimes against humanity.” In a March 28 blog post for the Washington Post, Dawkins expressed his hope that “the whole rotten edifice [i.e. the Catholic Church] — the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution” would “tumble ... amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins.” He also called Benedict a “leering old villain in a frock.” Yes, it’s “men in dresses” one more time.

The anti-Catholic media frenzy has gotten to the point that even the staunchly nonreligious Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, denounced what he called a “secular inquisition” aimed at the church. As the insult “men in dresses” that typically accompanies the attacks signifies, the new round of supposed revelations about Benedict has little to do with vindicating abuse victims or punishing clerical pedophiles. It has everything to do with discrediting and destroying the Catholic papacy and the Catholic Church as we know them and replacing them with something more to the bashers’ liking.

This piece originally appeared in Los Angeles Times

This piece originally appeared in Los Angeles Times